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Lockheed’s stealthy F-35 breaks down too often, Pentagon says

A U.S. Air Force F-35A stealth fighter jet manufactured by Lockheed Martin is display during a press day of the Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition (ADEX) at Seoul Airport in Seongnam, South Korea, on Oct. 16, 2017.

SEONGJOON CHO/BLOOMBERG

By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: November 13, 2019

The Pentagon’s chief weapons tester said the next-generation F-35 jet continues to fall short of full combat readiness targets and, despite some progress on reliability issues, all three versions of the fighter are breaking down “more often than planned.”

None of the Air Force, Marines and Navy variants of the Lockheed Martin fighter is meeting its five key “reliability or maintainability metrics,” Robert Behler, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing, said in prepared remarks Wednesday before two House Armed Services Committee panels.

The House subcommittees are reviewing the $428 billion program’s status and progress recovering from years of cost overruns and production delays.

“The operational suitability of the F-35 fleet remains at a level below service expectations,” Behler said in the prepared remarks. “In short, for all variants, aircraft are breaking down more often than planned and taking longer to fix.”

His statement is a reality check just weeks after the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin announced that they finalized the largest contract in the program’s history, a deal valued at $34 billion for 478 additional aircraft. About $27 billion’s worth of F-35s already have been placed on contract even though the program hasn’t completed all its combat testing and struggles with reliability.

The program continues in its most rigorous phase of combat testing, a stage that will stretch into next year. So far, 458 jets have been fielded out of about 3,500 planned purchases by U.S. and allies from Australia to Poland. Pentagon approval for full-rate production, delayed from December, looms for 2020.

Even with that 2020 target approaching, analysis to date shows that neither the Marine Corps nor the Navy F-35 model is currently “on track” to meet its reliability metrics even as they log more hours, according to the latest assessment.

Among the key lagging metrics cited by Behler are “mean flight hours between critical failure” — a data point that refers to the time between failures that result in the loss of capability to perform a mission-critical task, or mean time between part removals for replacement from the supply chain.

Significantly, while the F-35 fleet demonstrated, over short periods, “high mission capability” rates reflecting the percentage of time jets are safe to fly and able to perform at least one specific mission, the jets “lagged” by “a large margin” the more complete measure of “Full Mission Capable” status, he wrote.

That indicates “low readiness” for combat missions “that require operationally capable aircraft,” Behler said.

Nevertheless, Pentagon and Lockheed Martin officials repeatedly highlight the “mission capable” rates of operational units deployed overseas when discussing program progress. In her statement to the Congressional panels Wednesday, Pentagon Under Secretary for Acquisition Ellen Lord cited “improving overall F-35 sustainment outcomes and aircraft readiness despite dramatic fleet size increases.”

“As the fleet has grown, aircraft readiness has grown,” Lord said. All three U.S. military services have declared their respective aircraft as possessing an initial combat capability. Lord added that overall “mission capable” rates increased to 73% last month from 55% in October 2018.

Across the services, over the same time period, the Air Force increased its mission capable rate to 75% from 66%, Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, the Pentagon’s F-35 program manager, said in his prepared statement. The Marine Corps rate rose to 68% from 44%, he added.

Citing one measure of reliability improvement, Fick said the percentage of aircraft rated not mission-capable because they waited for spare parts “increased through early 2019, but has steadily decreased since summer.” As of last month, the rate “was under 15% for our operational fleets and 24% for our non-operational, testing and training fleets,” he said.

Behler agreed, pointing out that “after several years of remaining relatively stable, several key suitability metrics are showing signs of slow improvement” this year.

Still, no F-35, including those deployed to combat units, has been able “to achieve and sustain” the 80% “Mission Capable” goal for the 12 months ending in September called for by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, Behler said. “However, individual units were able to achieve the 80% target for short periods.”

The Air Force F-35 version, which will constitute the bulk of U.S. purchases, demonstrated the best performance while the Navy’s F-35C fleet has the lowest. The more recent improvements were due to the “greater availability of spare parts” and “longer-term efforts to improve maintenance processes and depot support,” Behler said.

In his statement, Lockheed Martin program manager Greg Ulmer said “readiness rates continue to rise across the fleet, and today we see on average a mission capable rate of more than 70% on combat-coded aircraft.” Earlier this year, the Air Force announced that its airmen and fleet of F-35As participating at Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada “delivered 90% mission capable rates during the exercise,” he said.

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